Who's at Fault When No One's at the Wheel?

By Joy Syrcle

From Google’s Self-Driving Car Project to Uber’s pilot testing of self-driving cars set to launch this fall in Pittsburg, autonomous vehicles are quickly becoming part of our daily reality. While in time this technology may dramatically reduce traffic accidents by eliminating human error and problems caused by distracted or impaired driving, car crashes will still happen. Who is liable for an injury suffered as a result of a crash involving a self-driving vehicle? Can an individual in an autonomous vehicle be negligent for not assuming control of the vehicle to prevent an accident? Does a company such as Uber assume greater liability through use of automated vehicles in its business? This is largely uncharted territory. This past September, in the first lawsuit of its kind, the family of a man who died in a crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot technology filed suit in China. Tesla may also soon be facing litigation in the U.S. in relation to Florida resident Joshua Brown who died in May while using the autopilot function of the manufacturer’s Model S.

There are a few cases arising from analogous technology that could provide insight on how courts might handle claims involving autonomous vehicle technology. For example, most cases involving injuries caused in the use of industrial robots were attributed to employee’s failures to take safety precautions. Similarly, in one case involving a crash while an airplane was controlled by autopilot, the court faulted the pilot’s failure to retake control of the plane. Conversely, plaintiffs have been successful in claims against vehicle manufacturers, alleging the cruise control function in vehicles caused the vehicle to unexpectedly accelerate or fail to brake.

Laws of individual states may also contain provisions relevant in allocating civil liability. Nine states have passed legislation related to the testing and use of autonomous vehicles. Florida, for example, specifies that an individual causing the autonomous vehicle to engage is the “operator,” and this statutory provision could be used in a civil suit to argue the driver maintains some obligation in the handling of the vehicle. Washington D.C. expressly requires that a human driver be “prepared to take control of the autonomous vehicle at any moment.” Nevada law, on the other hand, provides that an individual utilizing a self-driving vehicle is exempted from statutory prohibitions against texting while diving, specifying that these persons are not deemed to be operating the vehicle for the purpose of that prohibition.

Further complicating this analysis are aftermarket products that convert standard vehicles into autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. Michigan, Nevada, and Washington D.C. have each enacted laws to limit liability of an original manufacturer of a converted vehicle. While these limitations are narrow, they are examples of statutory protections for manufacturers. Companies should consider whether other situations exist that may be appropriate for similar legislative protections at either the state or federal level.

Manufacturers could also attempt to reduce liability through extensive disclosure statements and by requiring purchasers to sign acknowledgement or waiver forms. This protection, however, would likely extend only to the purchaser of the vehicle and not to any other person suffering damage in a crash.

The full extent to which liability for crashes involving autonomous vehicles will be shifted from vehicle owners/operators remains to be seen, and manufacturers and businesses utilizing self-driving vehicle technology should be prepared to defend against litigation that will most certainly ensue.

Joy Syrcle is a member of the firm's Business Litigation division. Ms. Syrcle is located in the St. Louis office. For more information, please contact Ms. Syrcle or your usual Stinson Leonard Street contact.

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